“You gotta be hungry and try to match that intensity. I know
Phil is preparing for the fight of his life and he’s got everything to
gain in this situation." - Rashad Evans
In early 2006, Rashad Evans was fresh from winning The Ultimate Fighter’s second season at heavyweight and he was returning to the 205-pound weight class to begin chasing after a UFC title. He was just a prospect then, unbeaten with the world ahead of him. Yet before his fight with Sam Hoger, he spoke of a philosophy that would serve him well in the future. He called it “embracing the suffering.”
When reminded of this in a recent interview before his Saturday FOX main event against Phil Davis, he laughed.
“The theme for this camp has been embracing the suffering,” said Evans, but it’s been no laughing matter getting to the Davis fight, where a win will once again put him in position to regain the light heavyweight title he lost to Lyoto Machida in 2009.
Since the lone defeat of his career, Evans has won three in a row, beating Thiago Silva, Quinton Jackson, and Tito Ortiz. But he’s also been plagued with injuries, layoffs, cancelled fights, late replacement opponents, a switch in training camps, and a highly-publicized feud with his former teammate and current 205-pound champion Jon Jones. So there’s been plenty of suffering for Evans to embrace.
“Coming back from an injury and not being able to be active with back-to-back injuries like that is kinda hard,” he admitted. “It was a bit tough, I wasn’t finding my rhythm early on and stuff like that, but when you spend so much time out, it tends to happen like that.”
In the process, the man whose name should be first on your mind when it comes to contenders for Jones’ throne has become an afterthought to many. On Saturday he gets to reintroduce himself to the world as the number one contender, so at this point, some fans’ apathy doesn’t really affect him now.
“In this sport, it’s pretty much what have you done for me lately,” said Evans. “If I’m not out there doing it on a consistent basis, letting everybody see all the time, then people tend to forget. And that’s fine, that’s okay with me. It just gives me a little bit of something more to work for and it gives me a lot more motivation on those days when it’s hard to motivate myself. I just think about where I could be, where I should be, and where I want to be, and that gives me enough drive to push through those days that get hard.”
So what are those days like?
“On those days, it gets kinda frustrating, I can’t lie,” he said. “I get upset and angry with myself when things don’t go the way that I want them to, but then I remember that it’s all part of the plan, it’s all part of what’s supposed to happen to me. I don’t think that anything happened to me that’s not supposed to happen to me, and I feel that I can make it through and persevere through anything. So I just try to keep a strong mind because it’s easy to start feeling sorry for yourself. And once you start feeling sorry for yourself, only bad things come and you can never get anything done.”
Needless to say, Evans keeps his internet surfing to a minimum during camp, choosing to avoid the inevitable stream of haters and advice-givers that always seem to overshadow the true fans.
“I stay away from the internet for the most part,” he said. “But I still keep a bead on what’s going on. All I can control is what I need to do on January 28th. That’s my main focus. Everything else is just extra. Kanye West said it best when he said “nothin’s ever promised tomorrow, today.” So it don’t even matter when they say ‘Rashad, you get this next title shot.’ It’s all about what happens when it’s supposed to happen, and I’m not gonna waste no time, thought, or energy trying to be like ‘this should be what it is.’ Because when it is, it is.”
At 32, Evans has pretty much seen it all in the sport of mixed martial arts, both good and bad. And once of the key things he’s learned is that all the stuff outside the gym and the Octagon is just that – stuff that needs to stay outside. When the door closes and the bell rings, it’s time to – you guessed it – embrace the suffering. And with his team of Blackzilians in Boca Raton, Florida, he’s getting exactly what he needs to achieve that feeling.
“I’ve got a bunch of killers in my training room, and they are not feeling sorry for me or taking it easy on me one bit,” said Evans. “So whenever I go in there, I gotta go against Rumble (Johnson), I gotta go against whoever else they may bring in, and they want a piece of me, so if I’m not competing at that level, I’m gonna be feeling bad in practice as well as outside of practice. I’ve got to swim or drown, and that’s how it’s been and that’s how I’m able to stay sharp, because everybody around me is razor sharp.”
Physically, Evans is where he wants to be, and that was the biggest hurdle for him after dealing with serious injuries to his knee and thumb over the last year. As far as the mental game goes, he’s always had that part of things down pat, and nothing has changed leading into this Saturday’s bout. In fact, his motivation comes from way back, and it extends far into the future.
“I come from nothing,” said the Niagara Falls, New York native. “Growing up I didn’t really have too much, and I can tap into that anytime that I want to and just remember how bad things were for me growing up and just knowing that I never want to go back there and I don’t want my kids to go through it. So what I’ve got to do is I gotta stay strong and I gotta drive. And more than anything else, this is a dream of mine to become the best and in other words, immortal. How many other people get a chance to be remembered forever? And that’s what I really want. I want to be remembered forever.”
Evans’ attitude brings to mind a conversation with future boxing Hall of Famer Bernard Hopkins in which he told me that a loss in his upcoming fight with Oscar De La Hoya would knock him out of Pay-Per-View fights and back to fighting on basic cable. He knew that wasn’t going to happen, but he needed to think that in order to keep himself hungry and motivated. Evans has that same mindset.
“I never want to get content,” said Evans. “I never want to think that I’m at a certain spot and I’m gonna stay there, because this organization’s hard to stay in, and this is the wrong place to get complacent in. You’ve got so many guys coming up and putting in work, and everybody wants to be in my position, so I gotta be paranoid and think that if I’m not producing, if I’m not going out there and winning fights and winning impressively, I’m gonna be replaced. And I don’t like that and that’s not an easy feeling for me, so I try to do everything in my power to make sure that does not happen.”
The unbeaten Davis is one of those guys “coming up and putting in work,” and he would like nothing more than to take Evans’ spot at the top of the light heavyweight contenders’ list. But can a young fighter with raw talent beat an older, but more experienced one?
Evans believes so.
“If you go in there and you just think that you’re experienced and you’re gonna use that alone to take the young buck out, you might find yourself sitting down and being upset because if he’s got that raw talent and he’s hungry, that could get him the win,” said Evans. But like anyone who has been to the mountaintop and wants to get back there again, it’s not as simple as that. He may be older, but he’s got tricks up his sleeve that he can’t wait to reveal on Saturday night. Evans didn’t embrace the suffering for nothing; now it’s time to dish some out to his opponent.
“You gotta be hungry and try to match that intensity,” he said. “I know Phil is preparing for the fight of his life and he’s got everything to gain in this situation. This is his coming out party. So I really got to go in there and beat him mentally first. I’ve got to think like I’m fighting me. I’ve got to tap into that feeling I had when I fought my big fight against Chuck Liddell or Tito Ortiz or Rampage, which was ‘this is my moment to shine.’ If I go in there thinking I’ve got something to keep away from him, it’s not gonna be a good fight for me. I’m going in and I’m gonna hunt for him. I’m trying to take something he’s got.”